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ETHIOPIA: Episode 7 - Of Music And Angels

Lalibela, Ethiopia's Jerusalem, a town of faith unchanged for over a thousand years.  Episode 7 takes us into the realms of the rock hewn churches, carved out by the angels and at the centre of Ethiopia's Christian faith.  But first of all we start with stumbling into a music video at the honey market...

Check out Episode 7 of our adventures around Ethiopia.

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ETHIOPIA: Episode 6 - Salt

In the hottest place on Earth the Afar people toil throughout the scorching day to harvest thousands of kilograms of 'White Gold'.

The Afar have evolved specially to be able to withstand and work in this hot, arid landscape with little or no water.

Join us for Episode 6 of our journey around Ethiopia.

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ETHIOPIA: Episode 3 - Buna

Ever had coffee roasted on an open fire, grounded and served right in front of you? We did, in a small village 3,000m up in the Simien mountains.  Captured beautifully in our latest film.

Check out Episode 3 of our adventure around Ethiopia:  Buna

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ETHIOPIA: Episode 2 - War

African history sits in our educational knowledge as a backwater; glossed over with some wars, a few genocides and little famine.  I class myself as well traveled and well read, however I was soon to learn that there is all of this and a lot more in Ethiopian recent history than I could have ever have thought of... and a lot of it happened in my lifetime.

This is our second episode in our epic journey around Ethiopia.  Enjoy!  Ethiopia: Episode 2 - War

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Blonde, Blonde Hair

Up in the Afar region of Ethiopia, close to the Eritrean border marks a region labelled as ‘the hottest place on Earth’.  The people that live here are mostly nomadic, some friendly, some less so to outsiders. 

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A Thousand Years of History

A thousand years ago, King Lalibela of Ethiopia, helped by angels carved twelve magnificent churches out of the ground beneath his feet in a single night.  He dug down into the ground and from solid rock carved each church before hollowing out the centre. That is how the legend goes, which our guide vehemently believed.  And despite their architectural wonder it is the belief of these churches, belief of Christianity amongst the Ethiopians that brings these buildings, some of the oldest in Africa, alive.

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The Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland is one of the world's oldest salt mines and was in operation up until 2007.  On Saturday night it was taken over by swing dancers for Dragon Swing 2014. This is alternative tourism at it's finest and one of the most surreal moments in my life.

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A Special Lecture on Aeronautics (somewhere in the Zambian countryside)

**New short film online!**

In 2012 during another year's travelling I found myself in a small Zambian village with no electricity or running water. We were greeted with song and dance and countless smiling faces.

What could I do to give something back?

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Authenticity in Travel

It’s authenticity that we have always been in search of:  The search for ‘cool’, the declaration of ‘pretentiousness’ and the smirking at hipsters are all about our definition and acceptance of authenticity. 

In the fast moving pace of urban western society this is a subjective minefield and the very search for authenticity, by definition, becomes the very opposite.  But authenticity isn’t a modern trait and neither is it confined to the realms of western society.  When we travel, I have noticed, we are continually searching for the ‘real’ country, authenticity it seems, consumes us even abroad.  I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a real (authentic?) traveller.  Is it in search for people, societies or cultures that have yet to be assimilated into the fold of the mono-cultural, homogeneous society that we are converging into?  A lot of people I met would agree with this, they would argue that that is to experience the ‘real’ country; an ‘authentic experience’.  To be honest with myself, this was something that attracted me to travel too.  The farther away these societies are from our own, the greater these differences, means the greater our awe, the more we’re entertained and quite possibly, more we learn.  But is the search for this authentic?  I might’ve been in agreement with this question in the past, but now I would disagree.  To be a real traveller is to see what is there, without any preconceived notions or ideas of what to find.  As soon as we are in search for something we are no longer open to other experiences, to other ideas, we have already narrowed our mind and by that we are no longer seeing the ‘real’ country, blind to the reality that is before our eyes – whatever it may be.  That is how I define the difference between travelling and tourism, it’s a mindset, and is brilliantly phrased by G. K. Chesterton with his quote ‘The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.’

This is not to put down tourism or to revere travel.  Sometimes when on a trip I grow tired of ‘travelling’ and I become a tourist for a few days/weeks, deciding what I’m seeing beforehand.  In doing so I might learn more intellectually, satisfy a curiosity and quite frankly have a far more enjoyable time, but none of these lessons cuts as deep as that of an experiential learning that comes from experiencing the world from a traveller’s perspective.  During my trips I am both a traveller and a tourist, the former being the real work which is often tiring and the latter being, in a way, a type of rest and relaxation.

Authenticity in travel is not thus defining oneself as a traveller as opposed to a tourist, but is, in fact, just the same as authenticity in every aspect of life – It is to be true to oneself.


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EC Bristol Drinks with Vijay and the Kumbh Mela: 1st May

Great to talk at Explorers Connect yesterday in Bristol and in Southampton last week.

See the full video of the Kumbh Mela below (excerpt shown yesterday):

Film and Photography in Polar Environments for UK POLAR NETWORK in Southampton.

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The Kite Cutter

The kite festival in Ahmadabad, Gujarat, India is one of the most eagerly anticipated festivals of the year.  Millions of kites are flown over the two day festival.  This video follows Deepak Banjara, a local kite enthusiast as he celebrates this festival in 2013.

Ahmadabad, Gujarat, India. Filmed by Vijay Shah

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An Interview with a Holy Man

Muktanandji is a sadhu (holy man) from Gujarat, India. He has dedicated his life to serving the local community - improving the livelihoods of the impoverished villagers.

He was kind enough to allow me to set up an interview with him.  Here he describes his spirituality and his work, where it all began and his vision for the future.

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Self Immolation

Yesterday I joined a candle light vigil in memory of two monks who self immolated the day before (24th April).  The two young monks, both in their twenties, died at the scene from their injuries.  Since 2009, as many as 117 Tibetans living under China's rule have set themselves on fire demanding freedom and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from exile. McLeod Ganj, India, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile is probably the the only place that such a large gathering of Tibetans can happen without fear of oppression to pray for the fallen and protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

We met at the main square at 6pm and walked around the city with candles singing prayers before ending up at the Tsuglagkhang Temple (residence of the Dalai Lama) where more prayers were sung and commemoration was given to the two young monks.

It was impossible not to sympathise with the dispair amongst the Tibetans.  They are not just fighting against an all powerful overlord but an increasingly indifferent international community

I will let these few photos that I took (with my broken camera) speak the words.

More information on the Free Tibet movement and how you can participate at (www.freetibet.org).

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Where are you from?

How can such a simple question lead to such trauma? Not other people's trauma, but my trauma, trauma to my well being. There are several answers I could give, each one correct yet wrong. Taking the question literally I would answer, London, UK. That is where I was born and raised, home for the first eighteen years of my life. But the question is never just simply asking that, it is asking a lot more. Locked away in that small question are numerous questions all being asked at the same time: Where do you live? What is your background? What culture are you from? Tenuously it is even asking 'what languages do you speak?'

Answering London, UK as I normally do leads to much more misinformation than answers. Each encounter other than the most briefest of meetings inevitably ends up in a long monologue qualifying my answer giving my whole history right back to where my grandparents are from to answer that small, simple question. In the end I actually end up disqualifying my own answer.

The monologue starts with the geographical location of my birth: London, UK. Then the fun begins... 'I was born and raised in London, UK in a predominantly Indian culture smattered with some East African and an ever increasing chunk of English-ness. My parents are from Kenya and my grandparents (all of them) are from Gujarat, India. I spent the first eighteen years (about 60%) of my life in London. Due to university and work the following 20% was spent dotted around the UK (one has to differentiate London from the rest of the UK because for all intents and purposes London may as well be a separate country). 10% of my life has been spent travelling and expeditioning around the world and 10% has been in France. The answer to where I am now living? 'Nowhere'.

But no one wants a long answer to that question. What is the short answer? I don't know. The dilemma! The trauma! Maybe the only short, truthful answer I can give is exactly that: 'I don't know'. Oh, but then more times than not I would be dubbed as a pretentious 'new-found-hippie-child-of-the-world'. Any ideas?

Answers on a post(card) please...

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The Darkness of the Mind

I am in a dark place. Physically and psychologically. My eyes are closed to the world and it is only the darkness that is showing itself. The past: things I haven’t thought about for years. The future: Cohesive plans forming. And these words too, inscribed onto my memory to be transcribed later. For I have no hands to write with, nor eyes to see with or ears to hear with. I am but a mind. My body is trapped in a prison now for six days and the darkness is closing in. Memories upon memories, I cry, I laugh, great emotions stir within me. I am in a dark place. Am I the darkness that is enveloping me? A moment of doubt, but profound and soul shaking – a powerful shudder from the subconscious.

I shake my head and come back to the task at hand, to feel the sensations on the body. Bit by bit I move my concentration through the various parts. Starting at the top of the head and moving my attention downwards. I pause at my shoulders, I fail to feel even the touch of my clothes on the skin. I wait there, but my mind doesn’t. It has gone back into the realm of dreams: Thoughts about love, work and family. I realise where it has gone and I wrench it back into the present. I concentrate once again on my shoulders waiting for a sensation to emerge but my mind has gone off again like an unwatched toddler. This time the past turns into the future by some spurious linkages in the sub-conscious. I find solace in the plans of the future, of seeing my girlfriend after three months apart, about starting a new life together, in a new country with a new job, learning a new language. Once again I realise where I am and bring my mind back to the present. I scold myself for enjoying such thoughts for the object of the exercise is to develop an indifference to all things that change. And everything changes.

I leave my shoulders and move my attention to the torso, to the arms and to my legs. My bottom and legs are in pain, I have not moved since starting this exercise and I have no idea how much of the one hour sitting has passed. I fight the impulse to open my eyes and try to view the pain objectively to accept it as it is knowing that it will not last forever. The pain subsides for a few seconds but is soon back in full strength.

I notice the darkness again, it has been with me all day. Right from the wake up call at 4am to now, somewhere between 6-7pm and the last hour of ten hours of meditation. I fight against it, accepting for what it is, a darkness can only be darkness if we take it as such. ‘Equanimity to all sensations’ we are told, ‘to all thoughts’… ‘to pain’. The pain, the darkness is all too strong. I find solace once again in memories. Then the static of the tape starts and the silence of the meditation is broken by the chanting coming from the speakers and the hour is up.

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After the Vipassana

“I’ve just been released from prison.” I leave the prison with wide eyes open to the wonders of the outside world. I talk to everyone I see, the fellow inmates and the prison staff most for the first time. It’s been a tough sentence, not so much physically but mentally I’ve been through a washing machine.

At the prison one cannot talk to the other inmates or prison staff, inclusive of body language, facial gestures or any other form of communication. No reading or writing material or music is allowed inside either. Even eye contact with others is prohibited; a sign reading ‘eyes downcast and you’re bound to be successful’ is displayed on the ground in line with downcast eyes. The inmates are only permitted two meals a day with a small snack in the evening. Sleep is limited to 6 hours of day and the small cells are not much larger than 2x1m. The worst of it though is that the prisoners have to perform ten and a half hours of meditation a day, every day. Three of these hours are in forced discipline where one cannot move for the entire hour. Fortunately the sentence is only ten days long.

That is the best way to describe entering one's first Vipassana course. Prison. That is even how the teacher described it: A self-imposed sentence in a prison with rules harsher than the most severe penitentiaries’. The harsh rules are there for a reason and as this is a sentence one has subject on oneself the prisoners/meditators mostly follow them willingly. I did, finding the inner strength during the darkest hours to continue. Even when some of the inmates started talking clandestinely after day 5 I avoided eye contact with them to prevent any unwanted interaction. That was when the prison analogy was at it’s most exact. The said inmates would stand nearby each other about a metre apart during the short recess recess periods between meditation sessions or after meals. They would look in parallel directions into the forest or far into the horizon apparently unaware of each other’s presence and have hushed conversations in secrecy. When one approaches they stop talking and start again only after one has passed. But in the enforced silence of the place they were not fooling anyone, for there is no other reason for meditators to stand so close to each other and sound travels.

The vow of silence that we took is there like all the rules for a reason. The meditation course is a huge journey within the depth of the mind or as the teacher put it a major operation into the mind. Each meditator is embarking on an individual journey into the darkest corners of their mind and everyone experiences it differently. Discussion and sharing of these experiences can easily lead to confusion, false expectation and ultimately failure in the meditation. But what is this meditation technique?

Vipassana meditation means ‘to see things as they really are’. It is a process of self-observation that was discovered by Gotama the Buddha 2500 years ago in India and the path by which he attained enlightenment. However the technique was very nearly lost to humanity and only by what appears to be a series of coincidences over the millennia the technique survived to today. The technique was preserved in a handful of teachers in Myanmar and handed down orally from teacher to student over hundreds of years but ultimately was limited to within Myanmar. Again by what appears to be a fortunate coincident a promising young student well established in the technique found himself in India to see his parents. A single isolated course given by this young teacher snowballed with an unstoppable force. People travelled from all over India and further afield to learn the technique and in a space of 50 years Vipassana centres have been created all over India and all over the world. After a gap of almost 2000 years this technique that had gained so much popularity in the time of the the Buddha has once again returned to it’s motherland.

The theory behind the technique states that all events are neutral. When they come into contact with the body through one of the six sense organs (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and thought) they create a sensation on the body. This sensation is itself also neutral but through ignorance we all have developed a habit of associating these sensations as a pleasant or unpleasant. One could see, smell, hear, touch, taste something pleasant or unpleasant or have a pleasant or unpleasant thought. And that, the Buddha says, is the start of all our miseries. When one evaluates a particular sensation as pleasant or unpleasant one develops a craving or aversion to that sensation which themselves are both forms of misery. When one has a craving for something but does not receive/attain it they become disappointed – misery. On the other hand when one develops a dislike to a particular sensation and they are subject to it they will too become upset, become miserable. The other important facet to Vipassana is accepting that nothing is forever. Everything changes. Thus a pleasant or unpleasant sensation has only one true characteristic: That it will change. With everything changing all the time any value we give to these cravings and aversions are bound to result in misery.

This evaluation of sensations happens deep within the unconscious layers of the mind and whilst we are all only aware of the surface (conscious) level of the mind we are locked into this cycle of misery through our ignorance. But what Gotama the Buddha discovered was that we do not require to be a slave to these evaluations. We can reach into the depths of the mind and change the nature of it and the way that it reacts to these bodily sensations. Once craving and aversion has been eliminated one will no longer be upset by whatever external event that passes but will always be happy and at peace with the world. That is the path to real happiness and harmony and the path that led Gotama the Buddha to enlightenment.

All other searches of happiness, through material gains or diversionary means only strengthen the cravings and aversions our minds have and thus only strengthen our misery.

The method by which the Buddha discovered to change the nature of the mind was by making the conscious mind aware of all the sensations that the body feels that were only previously evaluated by the deep unconscious. That is done by deep meditation.

And deep meditation is what we did. Starting at 4.30am we meditate until 9pm, every day. Three one hour sittings, one after breakfast, lunch and dinner were sittings of ‘strong determination’. One could not move at all during the hour and during the first couple of days the physical pain during the sittings were excruciating. After the sittings we left the hall limping off with stiff legs and backs. These were the hardest tests to control the equanimity of our minds to these sensations, but eventually the pain subsided as our control of the sensations grew stronger. Ten and a half hours of meditation everyday however took it’s toll. Each morning as I woke up I felt my body had been beaten up the previous day. But the physical duress was small compared to what the mind goes through. To be alone with one’s thoughts for so many hours is very revealing. The mind jumps to the past, to the future in an endless foray of thoughts and plans, of happy thoughts and melancholy. One tries to concentrate on the meditation and within seconds it has departed on some journey deep into the past. The greatest lesson on the first couple of days is how wild the mind is. Little by little over the first days the mind is tamed somewhat and concentration appears easier. It is only then that the real work of changing the deeper layers of the mind begins and the vipassana meditation starts.

The course is tough, but the fantastic support of the teachers and support staff makes this personal journey possible. As the days go by one realises that the physical prison that we have subjected ourselves to is nothing compared to the mental prison we are always in.

Alas 10 days is nowhere enough to transform the mind and no one pretends it is. Instead the 10 day course is an introduction to the technique and a tutorial of how to practice the technique oneself. There are years of work ahead to reach the goals sought but every step has its benefits and even after 10 days the effects are already felt. I’m happier as a result.

I'm off to meditate now.

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Vipassana - Some Thoughts

Evelyn asked if I am acared embarking on the ten days of silent meditation. No I am not scared, but I am nervous. I am nervous that I cannot benefit from it as much as I should. That I am not strong or motivated enough. I am inherently a quiet person and so shutting up for ten days does not seem much of a challange to me. But as quiet as my mouth is, my mind makes up for. I am a thinker and my mind is rarely quiet. It is analysing and anticipating and calculating. It chatters away consistently and unrelentingly on a hundred different topics at once. The vipassana course requires not only that I shut my mouth but that I free my mind of thoughts too. That is my challange. The course starts today at 2pm. See you all in ten days!

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Welcome to Backpackerstan

Backpackerstan. I love this term. I'm not sure where it originated from but it describes some places perfectly. The name invokes something exotic and edgy yet with all the fluffiness and comfort of 'back home' - a one word oxymoron. One of these places is Mcleod Ganj where I have just arrived. If I had done some research I would not have been so surprised at arriving here. But as it is I hadn't and all I knew was that this was the seat of the Tibetan Government in exile, home of the Dalai Lama and most important for me where the Vipassana centre is located where I am due to start a ten day silent meditation course. It is fascinating how each of these independent travellers, bent of discovering somethng 'new', something 'real', contributed to the creation of a Backpackerstan. Probably the very thing they were trying to avoid. It is also fascinating how such a place is created in the first place: A trickle of early explorers/travellers discovers a place, a community that accepts them, allowing them to live amongst them, cheaply and with some spiritual or environmental depth. These travellers tell their friends about this place and as the word is passed around the traveller grapevine the trickle turns into a stream. The path becomes troddenand soon enough the guidebooks get hold of it, as it is their job to do. The stream turns into a river as more laid back, less hardy travellers arrive. Businesses emerge catering for thier needs: Toilet roll, biscuits, crisps and beer. Inevitabely, the chocolate banana pancake is served and once the trance parties start the transformation is complete.

But the Backpackerstans of the world are not all the same and they are not necessarily a sell out to the 'true' traveller. There is a real reason why the place became a Backpackerstan in the first place it's not all coincidence.

Mcleod Ganj's allure is twofold. It lies at just below 2000m in the Indian Himalayas. The beauty of the Himalayan valleus topped by 6000m snow capped peaks and a temperate climate make it a haven from the rest of India. But more importantly (for the creation of a Backpackerstan) it is the home of the Tibetan government in exile and the home of the highest spiritual leader in Buddhism , the Dalai Lama. The popularity of Buddhism amongst western travellers need not be stated and they originally came here for the chance to commune with the great leader. In the streets of Mcleod Ganj, marron robed buddhist monks and Tibetan clothed westerners dot the streets in equal numbers amongst the more western dressed Tibetan and Indian residents. In the background in a plethora of signage restuarants claiming they make the best pizzas in town and guest houses delcaring the best and cheapest rooms vie for business. This is not how the town would've evolved without the backpackers. But it would be wrong also to attribute all the changes of Mcleod Ganj to backpackers. The seat of the Dalai Lama and the beautiful mountain scenery makes it a destination also for the more traditional tourist, foreign and Indian alike as well as a pilgrimage for Buddhists the world over. They too have affected the evolution of the town considerably and many businesses cater for their needs instead: Shops selling expensive Buddhist and Tibetan trinkets, statues and singing bowls line the streets leading to the main temple. However although these tourists have had some affect on the town and the numbers of Indian tourists alone easily outnumber the other type of tourists it is the backpackers that stay long term and have made the biggest differences here.

Once a Backpackerstan is born there is no going back. The culture of the place changes, the young , influenced by their western (richer) visitors fuse their culture with their own to create a hybrid culture sometimes combining the best of both cultures, often combining the worst. But that does not make travellers bad or irresponsible. It would be dishonest to the host for the traveller to pretend to be something they are not in order to prevent cultural changes. That is social engineering in itself. Cultures change all the time, influenced by everything they come in contact with. The fusion of cultures and it's evolution, happening faster here than other places is fascinating to watch.

A message for those that spurn such environments looking for the 'real' India, stop looking and start seeing because this is as real as anything else. Welcome to Backpackerstan!

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